Like the sound of blades whisking the ice, so are the figure skating days of their lives
Our look at the evolving role of media in figure skating
The 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games for some marked the 20-year anniversary of figure skating’s ultimate showdown on ice between America’s sweetheart, Vera Wang costume-wearing Nancy Kerrigan and sharp-tonged, triple-axel-jumping vixen Tonya Harding. Ever since that fateful moment in time the figure skating world has enjoyed a heated spotlight worthy of a daytime soap opera. Looking back to the now infamous 1994 Lillehammer Olympics with the benefit of a public relations and marketing communication lens leads us to question, did the showdown really climax on the ice, or was it a flagrant dramatization (or soap opera-tization) by the media to boost ratings and capitalize on the “days of the lives” of two athletic hopefuls they self-servingly polarized?
Television ratings for the Lillehammer Olympics reached epic proportions comparable to the Super Bowl thanks to the media feeding frenzy complete with popping photography flashes at practices (remember photography before the age of the iPhone?) and color commentary from the likes of Connie Chung and Pat O’Brien let alone figure skating legends Peggy Fleming, Dick Button and Scott Hamilton. The ladies’ short program alone earned what today remains the seventh-highest ratings ever recorded in TV history, making the Lillehammer Olympics the most-watched Winter Olympic Games ever.
Could these events have been the first signs of traditional media’s attempts at staying relevant in a fast-approaching digital age? Can we imagine how the events would have unfolded via Twitter, Facebook, Vine or Instagram? Twenty years later some media continue to grasp at straws for scandal among the competitors, an attempt to remain “the young and the restless,” ultimately pushing figure skating athletes into a fury to reap the benefits of winning and staying in the attention of the tabloid press, not unlike “the bold and the beautiful” of daytime. With the average age of a female figure skating Olympic champion equal to that of an average high school student at most, the signs all point to yes. Their “one life to live” is a short one on the ice, with visions of dollar signs and endorsements at the end of a very tight and competitive tunnel. Let’s recap the media spotlight focused on the beloved and belabored figure skating community with the resulting events that ultimately unfolded at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
It would be remiss if we didn’t touch on the “disastrous” (thanks, Scott Hamilton!) performance of American figure skater Jeremy Abbott, both in the first-ever team skate competition and the men’s singles competition. Ironically, both performances came in the short program on the ever-elusive quadruple jump. However, it was in the men’s competition where Abbott’s fall became even more dramatic, where an awkward landing on his skate left him tumbling into the skating wall, and he remained on the ice clinching his side for a solid 10 seconds. While he was still able to finish his short program, the Internet was abuzz of Abbott’s performance, with GIFs being created before the prime time coverage aired on NBC that evening. As Abbott competed in the free skate, you could say he pushed the dramatics aside to demonstrate he had a “guiding light” that helped him to deliver a solid long program.
Surprisingly, not all were even as lucky as Abbott. Evgeni Plushenko, one of the most decorated figure skaters of all time and arguably one of the most arrogant (rightly so thanks to his jumping skills and continuous self-reinvention, Note: NSFW), rose to help his team, Russia, win the first gold in the team skate and simultaneously resurrect Russian figure skating in the eyes of the world. Talk about delivering a message under pressure. A gold medal win was the equivalent to a Silver Anvil-winning global PR and marketing communications campaign. One could say his “passions” for his mother country, the limelight and competition have pushed him into a consistent personal battle to remain in the spotlight – a battle that has cost him numerous surgeries and pain unheard of for an average 31 year-old man, the consequences of which forced him to withdraw from the men’s competition to the dismay of fans internationally. Will we see him again on amateur ice? It’s too soon to say. Even Plushenko can’t seem to make up his mind according to conflicting reports. Our bets are on yes.
And when speaking of dramatic, the ladies’ singles competition did not disappoint. Much like Nancy vs. Tonya and Michelle vs. Sasha, a lot of the media focus surrounded the apparent battle between American skaters Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner. All the drama began leading into and shortly following the U.S. National Championships, where despite her fourth place finish, Ashley was awarded a spot on the U.S. Olympics team. Leading up to the Olympics, everything from commercials to magazine articles seemed to side with team Gracie or team Ashley and rare were the moments captured by the media that would indicate Gold and Wagner were friends, or even showed any form of camaraderie. And social media exploded with a meme featuring Ashley Wagner’s reaction to her short program score in the team skate that went viral, while Gracie was dubbed as elegant and graceful by commentators and media alike.
While neither Gold nor Wagner ended up on the podium, there was controversy surrounding the gold medal winner. Following the short program, all eyes seemed to be on Yuna Kim from South Korea, who many thought would repeat as a back-to-back Olympic champion. While Kim had an artistic and clean free skate, the gold ultimately went to a relatively unknown skater, Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova. Though many spectators could not justify why Sotnikova’s scores were higher, many figure skating veterans, from Tara Lipinski to Johnny Weir, took to their Twitter accounts to explain how her technical base was higher (meaning physically more difficult) than Kim’s. Kim also received lower marks on some technical elements, including her layback spin. Legendary figure skating champion Dick Button reiterated this when he tweeted “Kim had one fewer triple jump & received lower marks on both her jumps & her layback, just as I predicted.”
Finally, metro Detroit natives and pairs ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White basked in the glow of first-time gold for the U.S., while the media portrayed their on-the-ice rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada as somewhat sore losers who complained of favoritism by shared coach Marina Zoueva. Was it just the lack of or assumed tone in reports? Did the media inaccurately portray Virtue and Scott’s disappointment with silver? Sounds like a mixture of both. Nothing that a bit of media coaching can’t help.
Now that the Sochi Olympics have come and gone, all eyes are focused on the World Figure Skating Championships 2014 set for March 24-30 in Saitama. Who will return? Will young spinning marvel Yulia Lipnitskaya set aside individual Olympic disappointment and floor the competition? Will Mao Asada rise up from political criticism to land more triple axles and win gold at home in Japan? Will U.S. men’s or women’s singles make it back to the podium? What storylines will the media pursue this season? Has the drama fizzled or does the soap opera continue? There are many questions left unsettled, but one always remains at the top of our podium. Is the media changing our view, and the outlook of figure skating for the world? #youbethejudge
Jenn Korail (left) is an Account Manager for Airfoil, an integrated marketing communications firm with offices in Silicon Valley, Detroit, London and Hong Kong. Follow Jenn on Twitter: @JennyTee
Jenn Lee (right) is an Account Supervisor for Airfoil, an integrated marketing communications firm with offices in Silicon Valley, Detroit, London and Hong Kong. Follow Jenn Lee on Twitter: @commsjenn